Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
“I don’t care what is written, I don’t care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son’s throat for the sake of a hare-brained idea. I don’t care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It’s in my ex-wife’s tote bag.” – Meyer Landsman
When I was a kid and someone mentioned Alaska, I always thought of a land enveloped in snow. In my little imagination, it is where a Filipino kid, who has never seen a speck of snow, spends his entire youth playing with snowballs and creating snowmen. Now, in my post-teenage life, when I hear someone mention Alaska, I think of Sarah Palin hunting a moose as she ponders the national security threat that is Putin’s head. Never in my life would I associate Alaska as a land where millions of Jews live and, using the term loosely, thrive.
Enter Michael Chabon and his book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which portrays an Alaska inhabited by the Jews, mostly European, in an effort to escape the Holocaust. This was made possible due to the US Congress’ approval of the Slattery Report, a proposal to develop the Alaskan territories by accepting Jewish refugees from Europe who are escaping German persecution. So America sets aside Sitka, Alaska as the Jewish metropolis in which Jews are allowed to reside. However, this setting is not permanent as Sitka’s independence is only for a 60-year period after which Reversion, the return of Sitka to the US, will go through. Add to that the complication that, in this alternate history, Israel ceased existing after three months of its inception.
It is near the end of the Alaskan Jewish State that the setting of Chabon’s story begins. Without giving too much away, it is about the investigation of Meyer Landsman, our protagonist, into the killing of a man that lives in the same hotel that Landsman lives in. What is extraordinary about the murder is that the murdered man was the son of the most powerful gangster in Sitka and also the presumed Tzadik ha-Dor, the Jewish’s potential Messiah. Once this was revealed, you just know it that this is going to be different from your typical whodunit.
And different it really is. The plot involves a lot of twists and turns. We are taken from an island controlled by a Hasidic sect whose leader is a Rabbi/Gangster to across the Jewish-Tlingit border where a Jewish paramilitary compound is masquerading as a rehabilitation center for young Jews. It involves bodyguards that are seemingly manufacture; a Jewish expert on string that is vital to the Sitka Jews; red cows; the Temple built by Solomon in Israel; a famous pie in a certain airport; and a Zugzwang, a chess problem without a solution. It’s exciting, quiet, pensive, and funny (sometimes all at once).
Alaska itself can be assumed to be as important as its characters. A desolate place that is very different to the promised land of the Jews, a land of ice instead of the land of milk and honey promised by God to Abraham. Instead of the vision of the Jews clad in desert clothing, the Jews have themselves in layers upon layers of winter wear in order to protect themselves from the cold that they have been exiled to. And this place of exile, cruelly enough, is not their permanent home and they will soon find themselves without the comfort of a homeland. Chabon had given Meyer a place without hope, a place which he will soon leave, and yet Chabon also gives him a purpose, a sort of urgency, to find the killer who murdered his, and the Jewish people’s, potential savior.
In addition to Alaska, a character masquerading as the setting, Meyer also has his cousin and partner, Berko Shemets. Berko, against all logic and reason, is a product of two races that hate each other in Chabon’s Jewish Alaska. He is half-Jew and half-Tlingit Indian, two factions/races who are fighting for territory. The fight culminates in the burning of a Jewish synagogue and the subsequent massacre of Tlingit Indians, including Berko’s mother. Meyer’s cousin is an interesting character in this book filled with such, both minor and major. The conflict between his two identities is an interesting to observe as he is not accepted in both Jewish and Tlingit societies. Only Meyer, his family, and a few close friends can really accept who he is.
There is also Bina Landsman, Meyer’s former wife and now current boss. She is the only strong and interesting female character in the book. Another character of opposites, a woman strong enough to confront danger while still having the soft spot for those who wronged her, particularly Meyer, who forced her to abort her child due to Meyer’s lack of faith that it will be born without defect. In the end, Meyer and Bina got back together in a totally non-romantic way, they just did because they realized that they are perfect for each other as Bina is perfect fodder for Meyer’s pessimism and because Meyer is not intimidated by Bina’s authority.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a showcase for Chabon’s creativity and his abundance for words. However, this same abundance, that sometimes possesses great beauty in description, can be a bit repetitive. His descriptions can be tiresome at time as it runs on whole paragraphs and even pages in order to just describe a person and what he is thinking. It is a good thing that the plot is very engaging even if it is clunky and dragging at certain pages within the book.
However, even if it is flawed, I liked this book very much. Not only for the thrills that it provided but also for the things that it taught me. More than a murder mystery, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is an exploration into an individual’s, and a race’s, search for identity in a world that does not accept them. Even if we are not Jewish, we all felt the feeling of being unwanted in a way or another and we also engaged in the search for a place that will finally accept us and a place where we can find our true identities.